The night of January 7, 1938, didn’t start with any distinction; however, the events that would happen that night forever changed Carter County, Tennessee. Three little girls would be dead, and the nation would be left asking, “why?”
Pauline Cates Gouge started to put her three daughters to bed that night, but something was wrong. She had an ominous feeling that nothing would relieve. She purposefully kept the girls up much later than normal because of those bleak suspicions. Once the children couldn’t stay awake any longer, they all went to bed. She spent the rest of the worrisome night tossing and turning.
Just after 3:00 in the morning, on January 8, she briefly woke to an unimaginable roar. She fought the blackness only long enough to hear one of her daughters scream and see plaster dust falling everywhere. She then collapsed.
Thousands of people flocked to Hampton to see the destruction for themselves. An entire house simply detonated. Harmon, Pauline’s husband, raced from Johnson City to the hospital. It seemed unreal. The authorities helped, but even they had no answers for how a house could explode with such force.
Investigators discovered the horrific scene came from dynamite. They found the trail of burned fuse. It appeared to run out of the home’s cellar and across the road. Various estimates state the burned fuse originated 30 feet from the house, while others state it was as far as 60 feet. Later on, it would be revealed that it took around 45 minutes for the spark to travel from its point of origin to the explosives under the home.
Sheriff John M. Moreland already had suspicions of who was responsible, but nothing of substance. He then decided to contact Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning and request urgent help. It wasn’t just the lack of evidence that bothered him, but the growing outrage exhibited by the public. He worried about controlling an angry mob, or what might happen if that angry mob turned on an innocent person.
Gov. Browning responded. The Federal Bureau of Investigation intervened because there was question as to where the dynamite might have originated. Many suspected the explosives came from Kentucky. The FBI sent three investigators to Carter County, who traced the explosives to Chattanooga.
Browning also contacted Harry Avery, who was informally known as Tennessee’s “super-sleuth.” A title born of truth, as Avery had a seemingly impossible case wrapped up within 48 hours. Avery was just a “deputy fire marshal,” by title, but engaged in a variety of investigative roles throughout the state.
Avery centered focus on the details surrounding the family. Harmon Gouge, the father, was already in a troubling situation. In 1937, he’d partnered with Arnold Tollett to run a restaurant. The partnership dissolved into a troublesome arrangement, and eventually resulted in physical altercation. Arnold pulled a knife of Gouge, and he pulled a gun. The two wrestled over the gun.
The weapon fired three times into air as they grappled. The fourth bullet actually hit Arnold, and killed him. Gouge waited on the authorities. He never denied what happened and didn’t run. He said he only shot out of self-defense, and his testimony was corroborated by witnesses.
He was given a preliminary hearing and the authorities granted him bail. His trial for the shooting was scheduled for February of 1938. He was free of jail, but not free of the Tollett family.
Gouge had no idea of the type of people Tollett’s family was. Gouge ran some errands in November of 1937. He stopped to go in the store. As soon as he was a few feet from his vehicle, it exploded. The authorities investigated and found someone had placed around six sticks of dynamite under the car. The culprits had intended for the heat of the exhaust pipe to ignite the fuse.
Gouge was as perplexed as he was terrified. From that point on, he left his home in Hampton and stayed in Johnson City. He was too afraid for his family to return home.
Gouge’s worst fears occurred on Friday, January 7. The authorities said the house essentially imploded. The cellar blew up and shattered the house. This caused the entire foundation to cave in. Neighbors who ran to the scene found the girls sprawled across the same mattress their mother was on.
Two of the girls were dead when found, but a third still showed signs of life. Unfortunately, she died en route to the hospital. The mother also clung to life, but was critically injured. She wasn’t expected to live.
The daughters lost in the explosion were:
- Sonia – 9
- Luena- 7
- Roma Jean – 5
Investigators concluded that around 100 sticks of dynamite were placed beneath the house. To provide a reference point, demolition crews use a single stick to fracture and move 1 ton of rock. The Hampton explosion involved around 100 sticks placed beneath a 6-room house.
As soon as Avery began asking questions, it became clear the Tollett family was involved. The Tolletts were natives of Pineville, roughly 230 miles away. They weren’t backwards mountaineers, as many yellow journalists implied. They were heavily involved in the Bledsoe County court system. One was a coroner, another a deputy, and their sister was a court stenographer.
Avery drove the entire way to Pineville. The Tolletts were already his prime suspects. His main problem was distance. How did they travel that far, that fast?
Gouge told authorities that the Tollett brothers had attended all of his preliminary proceedings, even though they lived so far from Elizabethton. Gouge added that he’d never had any trouble with anyone in the Tollett family, outside Arnold.
Charges were first brought against Arnold’s brothers, Crave and White. Gouge knew them from the courtroom. Charges were also against Lee Walker, who accompanied the brothers. White and Lee were arrested before Avery reached Pineville. Another man, Church Lester, was also taken into custody on murder charges.
By January 9, the jail was becoming crowded. Along with murder charges, an entire group had been incarcerated for suspected lesser crimes.
Those arrested for aiding and abetting:
- Mae Tollett- Arnold’s sister
- Frank Thompson
- Tom Deloach
- Clyde Deloach
- Bruce Pierce
- James Greer
- Orie “Cotton” Lawson
Mae Tollett was the only individual allowed bond, but she couldn’t provide the $10,000 necessary. She was remanded to jail.
Six were booked on criminal charges by January 7, three were murder charges. White Tollett and Lee Walker were in custody, but Crave remained at large. By January 9, eight were held.
The unexpected and shocking arrest of Sheriff W. L. Walling, of Bledsoe County, negated all preliminary dates for those held. White Tollett had been his coroner, while Crave had been his deputy. The sheriff refused to arrest the Tollett boys. For his refusal, he was charged with accessory after the fact, concealing and assisting suspected murderers, and helping suspected murderers abscond. Fortunately, for Walling, the authorities eventually reduced his charges to accessory after the fact. Walling was arrested on January 10. Ten were jailed by the next day, and all were held pending their arraignment.
The Ides of January
Public outrage continued to grow as the days passed. Even though extra officers were brought in from Washington and Unicoi counties, the Carter County authorities remained uneasy.
Ulysses Tollett and Lee Walker shocked everyone when formally confessed and turned state’s evidence. The two admitted to their role in the car bomb, but wouldn’t take responsibility for the house bomb. The two men claimed White Tollett and Church Lester actually placed the dynamite in the house.
The authorities exonerated the lesser figures in the murder, including those arrested for aiding and abetting. The trial was scheduled to begin on February 22.
It was around this time that Harmon, along with the doctors, told Pauline of what happened to their daughters. The physicians advised against telling her earlier. They feared the shock and grief might kill her.
During the trial, both Harmon and Pauline Gouge took the stand. Pauline said:
“It’s impossible for me to understand how anyone could be so heartless and cruel.”
Several oddities came to light during trial. Primarily, authorities discovered the car bomb was in Gouge’s vehicle for two days before it exploded. No one understood how he operated the vehicle for so long without detonation. Investigators theorized, somehow, Gouge’s exhaust pipe just didn’t get hot enough to ignite the fuse. Another oddity is that the four men responsible for the bombing lit the fuse around 2:15 that morning. The house didn’t explode until after 3:00.
Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Erwin asked for the death penalty against all 5 suspects on March 1. While Crave was only charged as an accessory, investigators believed he was the mastermind behind the plot. They believed Crave had just been intelligent enough to keep himself distanced. As a result, no evidence linked Crave to the crime. His defense attorney, W. H. Clark agreed. The argument was successful. Crave Tollett was eventually acquitted.
The defense struggled further when two of their witnesses were arrested for perjury. Perry Thurman and Homer Creek were arrested when the stories of their whereabouts conflicted with those of the state witnesses.
Both Ulysses Tollett and Lee Walker claimed they were unwilling participants. Church Lester denied any knowledge of the plot at all. He claimed he was at home that night, and his claim was supported by his wife and father, F. M. Lester. His claim wasn’t supported. Ulysses and Walker both placed him under the Gouge home setting up the dynamite. Lester was known for his expertise with explosives.
The courtroom was silent when each sentence was delivered, on March 3. White Miller Tollett and Calvin Church Lester were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Ulysses Tollett and Lee Walker were given 21 years, even after testifying against their friends and family.
Defense attorneys immediately began seeking a new trial, but it would be of no use to Church Lester. He committed suicide in his jail cell on March 17. He hanged himself with leather belt. Lester tied the belt around topmost cell bar and jumped from bunk. His body was found at 5 pm, when supper was served. He left wife a letter:
“Darling, I have stood this punishment as long as I wish. I want you to look after the burial and leave room for yourself at your death. Take good care of yourself and Woodrow. God bless you both and meet me in heaven. C. C. Lester.”
Gouge on Trial
Harmon Gouge finally went to trial for the murder of Arnold Tollett in April. Mae Tollett was again in court and stated Arnold told her, on his deathbed, the fight had been about money.
Gouge was acquitted.
The Supreme Court
White Tollett’s defense counsel went before the state supreme court in October. Sam M. Price and D. M. Guinn, both of Johnson City, claimed nothing outside the confessions linked White to the crime. They said White was not given a fair trial. The authorities rushed everything because they were under the constant threat of mob violence. White was convicted based upon the uncorroborated testimonies of Lee Walker and Ulysses Tollett, who were just looking to shift the blame.
By Thanksgiving, the decision was made. White Miller would not get a new trial. His execution was scheduled for January 11, 1939.
The Hampton explosion was called the, “most dastardly crime in Tennessee’s history.” The Tollett family still attempted to save White from his death, up through the day of execution. Over 50 members of the Tollet family, and their friends, stayed in Governor Browning’s office. Ulysses even changed his story in an attempt to save his brother.
Tollett’s last meal was fried chicken, coffee, milk, and rolls. He was then taken to the death house on Tuesday, January 10, at 5:30 pm. He continued to profess his innocence and blamed those who confessed. He claimed none of them ever wanted to hurt the children, but like the others convicted, couldn’t say how Gouge’s family was supposed to escape the early-morning bombing unscathed. Likewise, none ever addressed the issue of living arrangements. At the time of the explosion, Gouge hadn’t even lived in Hampton for about six weeks.
Tollett was baptized by the prison Chaplin. Prison officials saw that he was bathed and his head was shaved for the chair. Despite the harassment and prolonged torture, Governor Browning did not intervene. White Miller Tollett was executed just before 6 am, on January 11.
Harmon and Pauline Gouge went on to have more children and lived for many years.
Harry Avery would have a long and decorated career. The deputy fire marshal would eventually become Tennessee’s Commissioner of Correction. He reconstructed the Gouge case timeline many years later.
At the time of the blast, he mulled over the series of events as he drove to Pineville. He knew that the brothers had help to make the 500-mile round trip. Lee Walker, as it turned out, had an incredibly fast car that law enforcement hated. He’d gotten in trouble a number of times for its speed. Church Lester was an expert with dynamite.
Lester also had a cabin in Signal Mountain, in the Frost Bite Hill area. Avery anticipated the defense would argue the 4-hour trip was too far, but he found a shortcut that shaved off much of that time.
Avery found Lester’s wife waiting in his cabin that morning. He told her that Lester had been arrested and asked for his knife and mackinaw coat. She retrieved them both.
Avery returned to the car and checked the knife. It still had powder from cutting the dynamite fuse. He was credited with being the most successful investigator in Gouge case.